Guerrilla Health News: Andrew Schorr's profitable model for health education

Published on
December 17, 2010

Andrew Schorr had a series of false starts with traditional media outlets. He was a freelance broadcast journalist but found himself making educational videos for patients. Schorr met with with New York book publishers, but he self-published his recently completed manuscript The Web Savvy Patient. He founded Patient Power in 2000, intending to create call-in health radio shows in Seattle. Ultimately, he built a targeted and participatory health news site for patients.

"I got out of the formal journalism community because I kind of thought that I wasn't doing journalism," Schorr said. "What I realize now is that really I've been a journalist all along."

Image removed.This week, Schorr talks with Career GPS about his sustainable model for getting in-depth health information to the people who need it and explains why you don't have to work for traditional media outlets to tell good health stories. Find this week's health media opportunities at the end of this post. Keep up with Career GPS by subscribing to the ReportingonHealth weekly newsletter or via RSS.

Schorr started his journalism career in a traditional way. He got journalism degrees from the University of North Carolina and then the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He went on to work in radio and television at WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a self-described "typical and healthy 22-year-old with a limited understanding of medical issues," he became the station's health features reporter and later the producer of the nationally syndicated PM Magazine, where he admits to hyping medical breakthroughs and "little Johnny can walk again" tearjerkers.

Eventually, Schorr moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and began freelancing for cable television on medical topics. The screenwriting didn't last, but his freelancing career introduced him to a new type of health media.

While covering a conference in 1984, he was asked to make an educational video for a medical company. These kinds of communications were usually authored by doctors and nurses, rather than journalists, and Schorr stumbled into a new way of connecting with patients. That experience led him to start his first company, HealthTalk, where he produced ongoing mass conference call talk shows with top experts on specific diseases and illnesses. The shows were sponsored by drug companies but Schorr says he maintained a strict policy of editorial independence.

In 1996, Schorr became a patient himself. He was diagnosed with leukemia and leveraged his knowledge of health media to join an online community for leukemia patients to help with his treatment. Around this time, he secured venture capital for HealthTalk, eventually raising $40 million. A CEO was brought in and Schorr took a back seat in the company he founded.

"As a journalist, I was kind of along for the ride," Schorr says. He lost editorial control, "and the money people took over."

His online engagement with other patients, however, helped him to find a clinical trial for leukemia patients. He underwent treatment in 2000, taking medications only approved by the FDA this year, and his cancer has been in a deep remission ever since.

His personal experience convinced Schorr to take a new approach to providing patients with better information about their own illnesses – he wanted everyone to have access to information about clinical trials and the best doctors -- and thus Patient Power was born.

"It's investigative, consumer, and health journalism all rolled together," Schorr says. But, unlike traditional media outlets, he wants to reach patients when they need critical information the most – when they are sick, rather than healthy. "Where are the patients who want to hear about specific illnesses?"

Patient Power syndicates its content (see its players on the MyHopeSpace Facebook page and on Canadian PKU) and is funded by pharmaceutical companies as well as medical centers. Schorr also covers medical conferences and innovations with an eye to patients' needs. It's a sustainable model; his company brought in gross revenue of $700,000 this year and he anticipates growth in 2011 as he becomes more aggressive about fundraising and gaining greater reach. Including himself, he has four full-time employees, two part-time employees and four contractors. The work is done virtually with occasional in-person meetings for specific projects.

"I'm a non-corporate guy. Guerrilla journalism with low overhead is so cool to me," Schorr says.

To those who want to work on specific health topics in depth, he says, "Don't despair. Now there's unlimited bandwidth. It's not about getting a job or airtime with one of the few radio or television stations."

Idea: "First, you have to be fueled by a passion," Schorr says. Find a health area where you have connections and interest. Join a community on Facebook or elsewhere online.

Philosophy: "You have to have a shift to community thinking," Schorr advises. Your content can't tell readers "I'm the doctor and you're not" or "I'm the journalist and you're not," he says. The Internet's ability to reach niche audiences means that you can sustain coverage, not just to disseminate information but to engage patients to who will offer information. Be an "orchestra leader," Schorr says. Guide a conversation about a specific health concern.

Funding: "Who are the natural stakeholders?" Schorr asks. Once you build a community, find out if they would pay a small amount for information. Like those who subscribe to Consumer Reports before buying or selling a car, patients value concise and trustworthy information about their care. You can also research medical centers that would be most interested in supporting content production. There are companies looking for a "do-gooder glow" by supporting projects without asking for editorial control.

Content: "I used to think you needed a ton of content," Schorr says, "but you can establish a footprint on an illness with as little as an hour of content." Schorr invested $5,000 to create a studio at home and creates content at conferences with two $150 cameras.

The Future: Schorr has his sights on international editions of Patient Power and mobile innovation. He's thinking about creating interactive posters for doctors' offices that can connect patients with videos using smartphones' ability to read barcodes.

Best of all, he's hiring. Schorr is looking for a bilingual Spanish-speaking host and producer on a contract-basis for cancer programs. He's also looking for an editor-in-chief with Internet and multimedia savvy for an upcoming prostate cancer initiative. ReportingonHealth members, you can log in and contact him from his profile page if you're interested in working with Patient Power.

Here are more job and development opportunities to help get your career moving.

Jobs, Awards and Fellowships

Health Editor, Boardroom (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Stamford, CT
Status: Full Time
Medium: Consumer/Newsletter

Web Content Health Reporter, O, The Oprah Magazine
Location: New York, NY
Status: Full Time Freelance
Medium: Blog/Online

Web Designer, New Parent Media (free registration at required)
Location: West Harrison, NY
Status: Freelance/Project
Medium: Online

Writer/Editor, Child Mind Institute (free registration at required)
Location: New York, NY
Status: Full Time
Medium: Nonprofit/Speech writing

Food: An MIT Boot Camp, Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT
Eligibility: Applicants may be reporters, writers, editors or producers from any country, and must have at least three years of full-time experience in journalism.
Included:Twelve journalists will be selected to attend The Food Boot Camp. Winners will be announced by February 11, 2011. We will reimburse up to $750 of travel expenses to Cambridge, provide accommodation, and provide most meals to selected participants. The Workshop begins Tuesday, March 22 and runs through Friday, March 25.
Deadline: Jan. 14, 2011
From the Website: "The Boot Camp will teach the basics of the issues and address the underlying science and the overlying social, economic and political factors. This will be an intensive course-all day, every day for a week-devoted primarily to discussions and lectures. Some of the most knowledgeable researchers and leaders from universities, government and industry will teach in the workshop. We'll also talk about the journalistic issues-how, in light of industry trends to make stories shorter and shallower, journalists can successfully cover the complexities of food and science."

Online Community Building and Health Program, USC Annenberg
Eligibility: California-based bloggers and founders/top editors of online news web sites
Included: 10 fellows will receive $2,000 to support the completion of an ambitious community health news or storytelling project, expenses-paid development seminars from April 28 - May 1, 2011 & June 23 - June 25, 2011, coaching and technical assistance with reporting project.
Deadline: Feb. 7, 2011
From the Website: "USC Annenberg's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships is launching a new program in 2011 to educate bloggers and editors of online news sites on ways to chronicle the health of their communities. At the same time, the program will help participants improve the "health" and sustainability of their own websites, with strategic and technical advice provided through a partnership with the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State. This program is co-sponsored by theOnline News Association. "

REMINDER: Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 on a wide range of health topics including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics, entry fee $30-$75
Award: Cash prize of $500 for first place winners in five categories, a framed certificate and complimentary lodging for two nights and registration for the annual AHCJ conference
Deadline: Dec. 28, 2010 (discounted rates), Jan. 28, 2011
From the Website: "The contest was created by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups."

REMINDER: Kaiser Media Internships Program
Eligibility: New journalists who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with experience reporting on health issues of diverse and immigrant communities, typically graduating from college and/or journalism school
Included: 12-week summer program with stipend, travel, training, and some accommodations, and 10 weeks residency with a news organization
Deadline: Jan. 6, 2011 for broadcast (print deadline has passed)
From the Website: "The Media Internships Program provides an initial week-long briefing on health issues and health reporting in Washington, D.C. Interns are then based for ten weeks at their newspaper, online, or radio/TV station, typically under the direction of the Health or Metro Editor/News Director, where they report on health issues. The program ends with a 3-day meeting in Boston to hear critiques from senior journalists and to go on final site visits. The aim is to provide young journalists or journalism college graduates with an in-depth introduction to and practical experience on the specialist health beat, with a particular focus on diverse and immigrant communities."

REMINDER: 2011 Hillman Prizes
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 in the United States with impact on social justice or public policy
Award: $5,000 plus a certificate and travel to NYC for our reception
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good."

REMINDER: Nieman Fellowships in Global Health Reporting
Eligibility: Full-time journalists with at least five years experience
Included: One academic year of of study at Harvard's School of Public Health, access to faculty and courses across the university, three to four months of fieldwork in a developing country
Deadline: January 31, 2011
From the Website: "Nieman Fellows represent the changing face of journalism. They come to Harvard from locations as different as Bangor, Maine, and Younde, Cameroon. They work for national and local print publications, broadcast news outlets, news Web sites, and documentary film ventures. Some are making their mark as freelance journalists. Some have practiced their craft under repressive governments or on far-flung fields of conflict. Together, each year they form a Nieman class that is rich in diversity, experience and aspirations for the years ahead."